Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Future of Fatah/The Regional Context

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Update from AIJAC

June 26, 2007
Number 06/07 #08

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert is currently at a Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, along with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, where they will discuss what Israel and Fatah, which still controls the West Bank, can cooperate on. While we will have more on the aftermath of this Summit in future, this Update deals with the prospects for Fatah, now that Hamas controls Gaza.

First up, Mohammed Yaghi and Ben Fishman from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy offer a fairly comprehensive description of Fatah and Hamas motives and actions until now, and the monumental task of reform in front of Fatah if it is to make the West Bank a serious alternative, competing with Hamas' Gaza. For this must-read general analysis of Fatah's situation from a knowledgeable source, CLICK HERE.

Next, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer looks at the difference between Hamas and Fatah, and says that while Abbas is not Hamas, he does look like a thin reed on which to base peace hopes, given his past weakness as a leader. While Krauthammer agrees that the West should try to support Abbas, he says we should be aware that success is in Abbas' hands, this is his last chance to salvage something for Fatah, and success is very far from guaranteed. For this full argument, CLICK HERE.

Finally, American scholar Joshua Muravchik reminds readers that the Hamas takeover can be seen in a wider regional context of Iranian and Syrian "muscle flexing" in Lebanon, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, in addition to the Palestinian sphere. Muravchik, however, argues that much of these efforts, including the Hamas takeover in Gaza, are over-reaching and counter-productive to the Iranian-Syrian agenda. But he also argues that the current situation creates a strong risk of sparking a major regional war. For this important look at the wider strategic context of the recent events in Gaza, CLICK HERE.


Hamas’s Coup and the Challenges Ahead for Fatah

By Mohammad Yaghi and Ben Fishman

PolicyWatch #1248
June 19, 2007
                                   
 Hamas's victory in Gaza last week was a military coup of Fatah's security forces -- not a Palestinian civil war involving the majority of each faction's supporters. Fatah's armed forces collapsed in the face of a long-planned, well-executed campaign targeting the headquarters and leadership of the faction's security organizations. The coup and the grisly violence that accompanied it reveal much about Hamas's politics and long-term objectives as a movement.
                                       
The triumph occurred largely due to the weakness of Fatah's leadership, which failed to mobilize the faction's superior numbers to stave off the assaults or organize any kind of counteroffensive. When formulating policy responses to the Hamas victory, the United States and its partners must recognize that no level of support for Fatah will enable the organization to defeat Hamas in the political arena if it does not undertake long-overdue reforms, including the overhaul of its inept leadership. The new emergency government headed by economist Salam Fayad is technocratic rather than political, so reforming Fatah will not be among its many missions. Such reform will instead have to be pursued in parallel with whatever steps are taken to bolster the new cabinet.
                                   
Fatah's Leadership Void
Fighting against a larger force, Hamas recognized that Fatah's primary vulnerability stemmed from rivalries among its leaders and their serial inability to take decisive action. Using a divide-and-conquer strategy, Hamas targeted the most threatening members of Fatah's Gaza leadership and their families while apparently cutting deals with Fatah figures keen to cooperate with Hamas. In essence, Hamas won the battle for Gaza by driving Fatah's most significant figureheads into exile in Ramallah a month before taking control of the streets.
                                       
In mid-May, for example, Hamas forces entered the home of Rashid Abu Shbak and killed several of his bodyguards. Shbak is a longtime deputy and enforcer of Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan and former director-general of the interior ministry. Although he had already fled to Ramallah when the attack occurred, the signal to him and Dahlan (recovering from medical treatment in Cairo at the time) was clear: they would be targeted for assassination if they returned to Gaza. Similarly, Hamas surrounded and shelled the homes of Preventive Security director Samir Mashrawi and Fatah spokesman Maher Mukdad, in addition to burning the homes of two Fatah representatives on the Palestinian Legislative Council.
                                       
Even as it carried out these attacks, Hamas publicly explained that its grievances were not with Fatah as a whole, but specifically with Fatah's Preventive Security Organization, presidential guard, and general intelligence personnel, all of which it labeled collaborators with Israel. This distinction paid off when Ahmed Hilis, a long-time Fatah rival of Dahlan's in Gaza, declared on al-Jazeera that Fatah and Hamas were not fighting each other. Instead, he claimed, groups within each movement were responsible for the violence. Previously, Hilis had organized an April conference for thousands of his supporters during which he criticized the motivations of "some groups" within Fatah and announced his opposition to joining the clashes with Hamas. His faction thus avoided being targeted by Hamas during the Gaza takeover.
                                       
Hilis represents an important perspective among those Fatah leaders who continue to favor cooperation with Hamas over confrontation. Other such leaders include Dahlan rival Jibril Rajoub, whose brother is a Hamas legislator, and Marwan Barghouti, who helped orchestrate the February 2007 Mecca accord and subsequent unity government from prison and has remained quiet in the face of Hamas's victory.
                                       
Those Fatah leaders who had been driven from Gaza before Hamas's takeover, along with their allies in the West Bank, responded to the assault with silence and paralysis. Just one day before Hamas overran his compound in Gaza and defaced his office, even President Mahmoud Abbas declared in a press conference with the Dutch foreign minister that he did "not blame one party" for the fighting. Both Abbas -- commander-in-chief of the Palestinian armed forces -- and other top Fatah security officials abandoned their roles as leaders while Hamas was surrounding their troops. Numerous press reports from Gaza have quoted local Fatah commanders and soldiers pleading for orders, some admitting that they could not reach their superiors for instructions because of turned-off cell phones. And even when Abbas finally acted to dissolve the government and declare a state of emergency, he chose an aide to read his decree rather than addressing the public directly.
                                       
It is impossible to say whether Fatah could have staved off total defeat had Abbas or his deputies taken a more vocal and active leadership role once Hamas made clear its intentions. But there is no doubt that the leadership void left Fatah without a chance. Abbas, for his part, did not issue any meaningful instructions to the police -- who were not engaged in most of the fighting -- to defend the other security organizations. Nor did he provide orders to the thousands of Fatah members in Gaza or demand that the leaders hiding in Ramallah return and rally their troops. Without such decisive moves, Fatah ensured its own collapse.
                                   
Hamas Motives
The extent of the planning required for Hamas's systematic operations last week indicate that the group was preparing for such an assault even before it became clear that the Mecca accord would not succeed. For example, exploding the tunnel under the Preventive Security headquarters in Khan Yunis alone took weeks of preparation.
                                   
It appears that Hamas initiated the ultimate round of fighting to achieve three related objectives, articulated by political bureau head Khaled Mashal in a June 15 press conference in Damascus: (1) force Abbas to implement the terms of the Mecca accord, which stipulated that Hamas be integrated into the security forces and, more significantly, into the official organs of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); (2) preemptively defeat Fatah's forces in Gaza before they could be strengthened from the outside -- a source of increasing concern for Hamas after the presidential guard began to receive training and supplies from the United States; and (3) reestablish internal security within Gaza.
                                   
Whether or not it was a realistic calculation, Hamas appears to have operated under the assumption that Fatah's defeat would force Abbas and his allies to concede Hamas's major points of contestation during unity discussions. Hamas has already reached out to Arab states to endorse its position on integrating the security services and restructuring the PLO. A June 16 meeting of Arab foreign ministers signaled that the Arab League would scrupulously avoid any kind of partisan role, however, instead offering to form a fact-finding committee to investigate the violence in Gaza.
                                   
Mashal's conciliatory press conference on June 15 emphasized that Hamas does not seek total control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but rather a true unity government according to its interpretation of the Mecca accord. The group has rejected the legitimacy of the emergency government headed by Fayad, insisting that the West Bank and Gaza be governed together. To indicate its good faith, Hamas issued a public pardon to all Fatah security forces in Gaza and released several of Fatah's remaining leaders captured during the violence.
                                   
The question for Hamas, however, is whether it acted too quickly and presumptuously. The group is now accountable to the people of Gaza and must figure out a way to feed the 1.4 million residents whose main source of assistance was suspended during the violence. As conditions rapidly worsen, blaming the West, Israel, or Abbas will not satisfy the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians whose means of subsistence and political identity as part of a future Palestinian state are now in question.
                               
The Fatah Response
Not surprisingly, Fatah forces retaliated against Hamas leaders and institutions in the West Bank, arresting activists, closing educational and cultural centers, and evicting elected officials from their offices. In Nablus, Fatah replaced the elected Hamas municipal council with its own newly appointed members and dismissed Hamas appointments to PA ministries. Such actions were taken out of both revenge and a genuine fear that Hamas may have a military apparatus capable of transferring the Gaza violence to the West Bank.
                               
In all these cases, Fatah acted in the same extralegal manner Abbas did when he declared a state of emergency and appointed a new government of technocrats that, in practice, can operate only in the West Bank. Although Abbas may have felt he had no choice but to appoint the emergency government and invalidate the previously amended Basic Law, he must now take a series of steps to prove he is acting legitimately and out of a sense of responsibility to the Palestinian public. Fatah has one last chance to cling to authority in the West Bank; if it fails in the coming months, it risks losing control of the PLO and, consequently, its leadership of the Palestinians.
                                   
 In addition to marshaling the expected economic assistance from the West to improve living conditions in the West Bank, Abbas must initiate an internal process of serious reforms to restore Fatah's credibility. Donor assistance or U.S. promises of what lies on the "political horizon" may help Fatah in the short term, but they cannot substitute for the badly needed reforms the faction must undergo if it is to regain legitimacy in the eyes of the populace. This means that the paralyzing rivalries among its leadership must be suspended; internal elections must take place (serious preparation for a party conference -- which has not taken place in eighteen years -- would be a good start); and grassroots activists and professionals must begin to take advantage of renewed international assistance by providing medical care, food, and educational services to their constituents. Fatah must also rein in its own militants and restore some measure of credibility to a long-broken judicial system.
                               
Only if Fatah can work simultaneously on the political, security, and social levels will it prove itself capable of restoring its lost credibility and competing with Hamas politically. Without significant efforts on all these fronts, financial and diplomatic gestures toward Abbas are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the 1990s, when donor assistance only cultivated corruption and the problems that plague Fatah today.
                                   
 There should be no illusions that such reform will be easy. Yet there is a dedicated group of young leaders within Fatah who are committed to the principles of internal democracy and hungry for the opportunity to restore legitimacy to a movement still governed by an older generation that was never connected to the Palestinian populace. Hopefully, the defeat in Gaza will shock Fatah into recognizing that it must adapt in order to overcome Hamas. The younger generation of Fatah leaders will need assistance from the West, however. Western diplomats would be wise to meet with these leaders directly and support their activities instead of relying on Abbas's office to perform the task of reform that it has avoided for the past two-and-a-half years.
                              
Mohammad Yaghi is a Lafer international fellow with The Washington Institute and a columnist for the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam. Ben Fishman is researcher and special assistant to Ambassador Dennis Ross at the Institute.


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Last Chance for Abbas

By Charles Krauthammer

Washington Post, Friday, June 22, 2007

Gaza is now run not by a conventional political party but by a movement that is revolutionary, Islamist and terrorist. Worse, Hamas is a client of Iran. Gaza now constitutes the farthest reach of the archipelago of Iranian proxies: Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Mahdi Army (among others) in Iraq and the Alawite regime of Syria.

This Islamist mini-replica of the Comintern is at war not just with Israel but with the moderate Arab states, who finally woke up to this threat last summer when they denounced Hezbollah for provoking the Lebanon war with Israel. The fall of Gaza is particularly terrifying to Egypt because Hamas is so closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the chief Islamist threat to the secular-nationalist regime that has ruled Egypt since the revolution of 1952. Which is why Egypt has just invited Israeli, Jordanian and moderate Palestinian leaders to a summit next week -- pointedly excluding and isolating Hamas.

The splitting of Palestine into two entities is nonetheless clarifying. Since Hamas won the parliamentary elections of January 2006, we've had to deal with the fiction of a supposedly unified Palestine ruled by an avowedly "unity" government of Fatah and Hamas. Now the muddle has undergone political hydrolysis, separating out the relatively pure elements: a Hamas-ruled Gaza and Fatah-ruled (for now) West Bank.

The policy implications are obvious. There is nothing to do with the self-proclaimed radical Islamist entity that is Gaza but to isolate it. No recognition, no aid (except humanitarian necessities through the United Nations), no diplomatic commerce.

Israel now has the opportunity to establish deterrence against unremitting rocket attacks from Gaza into Israeli villages. Israel failed to do that after it evacuated Gaza in 2005, permitting the development of an unprecedented parasitism by willingly supplying food, water, electricity and gasoline to a territory that was actively waging hostilities against it.

With Hamas now clearly in charge, Israel should declare that it will tolerate no more rocket fire -- that the next Qassam will be answered with a cutoff of gasoline shipments. This should bring road traffic in Gaza to a halt within days and make it increasingly difficult to ferry around missiles and launchers.

If that fails to concentrate the mind, the next step should be to cut off electricity. When the world wails, Israel should ask, what other country on Earth is expected to supply the very means for a declared enemy to attack it?

Regarding the West Bank, policy should be equally clear. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas represents moderation and should be helped as he tries to demonstrate both authority and success in running his part of Palestine.

But let's remember who Abbas is. He appears well intentioned, but he is afflicted with near-disastrous weaknesses. He controls little. His troops in Gaza simply collapsed against the greatly outnumbered forces of Hamas. His authority in the West Bank is far from universal. He does not even control the various factions within Fatah.

But the greater liability is his character. He is weak and indecisive. When he was Yasser Arafat's deputy, Abbas was known to respond to being slapped down by his boss by simply disappearing for weeks in a sulk. During the battle for Gaza, he did not order his Fatah forces to return fire against the Hamas insurrection until the fight was essentially over. Remember, too, that after Arafat's death Abbas ran the Palestinian Authority without a Hamas presence for more than a year. Can you name a single thing he achieved in that time?

Moreover, his Fatah party is ideologically spent and widely discredited. Historian Michael Oren points out that the Palestinian Authority has received more per capita aid than did Europe under the Marshall Plan. This astonishing largess has disappeared into lavish villas for party bosses and guns for the multiple militias Arafat established.

The West is rushing to bolster Abbas. Israel will release hundreds of millions in tax revenue. The United States and the European Union will be pouring in aid. All praise Abbas as a cross between Anwar Sadat and Simón Bolívar. Fine. We have no choice but to support him. But before we give him the moon, we should insist upon reasonable benchmarks of both moderation and good governance -- exactly what we failed to do during the Oslo process. Abbas needs to demonstrate his ability to run a clean administration and to engage Israel in day-to-day negotiations to alleviate the conditions of life on the ground.

Abbas is not Hamas. But despite the geographical advantages, he does not represent the second coming, either. We can prop him up only so much. In the end, the only one who can make a success of the West Bank is Abbas himself. This is his chance. His last chance.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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Winds of War

Iran is making a mistake that may lead the Middle East into a broader conflict

BY JOSHUA MURAVCHIK

Wall Street Journal, Monday, June 25, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

Several conflicts of various intensities are raging in the Middle East. But a bigger war, involving more states--Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, the Palestinian Authority and perhaps the United States and others--is growing more likely every day, beckoned by the sense that America and Israel are in retreat and that radical Islam is ascending.

Consider the pell-mell events of recent weeks. Iran imprisons four Americans on absurd charges only weeks after seizing 15 British sailors on the high seas. Iran's Revolutionary Guard is caught delivering weapons to the Taliban and explosives to Iraqi terrorists. A car bomb in Lebanon is used to assassinate parliament member Walid Eido, killing nine others and wounding 11 more.

At the same time, Fatah al-Islam, a shady group linked to Syria, launches an attack on the Lebanese army from within a Palestinian refugee area, beheading several soldiers. Tehran trumpets further progress on nuclear enrichment as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeats his call for annihilating Israel, crowing that "the countdown to the destruction of this regime has begun." Hamas seizes control militarily in Gaza. Katyusha rockets are launched from Lebanon into northern Israel for the first time since the end of last summer's Israel-Hezbollah war.

Two important inferences can be distilled from this list. One is that the Tehran regime takes its slogan, "death to America," quite seriously, even if we do not. It is arming the Taliban, with which it was at sword's point when the Taliban were in power. It seems to be supplying explosives not only to Shiite, but also Sunni terrorists in Iraq. It reportedly is sheltering high-level al Qaeda figures despite the Sunni-Shiite divide. All of these surprising actions are for the sake of bleeding the U.S. However hateful this behavior may be to us, it has a certain strategic logic: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

What is even more worrisome about the events enumerated above is that most of them are devoid of any such strategic logic. For example, the Hamas "putsch" in Gaza--as Marwan Barghouti, the hero of the Palestinian intifada, labeled it from his prison cell--was an enormous blunder.

Hamas already mostly controlled Gaza. It is hard to imagine what gains it can reap from its "victory." But it is easy to see the losses. Fatah, and the government of its leader Mahmoud Abbas, will be able to restore their strength in the West Bank with the eager assistance of virtually the whole outside world, while Gaza will be shut off and denied outside aid far more strictly than during the past year. Israel will retaliate against shelling with a freer hand. Egypt will tighten its border. And Hamas has in one swoop negated its own supreme achievement, namely winning a majority in Palestine's 2006 parliamentary elections. Until now, Hamas had a powerful argument: how can the West demand democracy and then boycott the winners? But now it is Hamas itself that has destroyed Palestinian democracy by staging an armed coup. Its democratic credentials have gone up in the smoke of its own arson.

Syria's actions in Lebanon scarcely make more sense. The murder of parliamentarian Eido will solidify and energize the majority that opposes Syria. Some suppose that, having now bumped off two Lebanese MPs (Pierre Gemayel was the other one), Syria plans to shave away the anti-Syrian majority in Lebanon's parliament by committing another five murders. But if so, this is a crazy gambit. Such a campaign would invite international intervention. It might well fracture the pro-Syrian forces: More Shiites will abandon Hezbollah and more Maronites will turn against Hezbollah's cat's-paw, Michel Aoun. And the murders might be for naught anyway: By-elections are already being planned that are likely to replace the martyred legislators with others of the same mind. As for the attack on the Lebanese army, Fatah al-Islam is on the brink of being crushed, leaving behind only more hatred of Syria and a better-armed, more confident Lebanese army.

As for Iran's actions, while arming the Taliban and Iraqi terrorists may make sense, what is the point of seizing British sailors or locking up the four Iranian-Americans, including the beloved 67-year-old scholar, Haleh Esfandieri, none of whom are involved even in political activity, much less in the exercise of hard power?

The apparent meaning of all of this pointless provocation and bullying is that the axis of radicals--Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah--is feeling its oats. In part its aim is to intimidate the rest of us, in part it is merely enjoying flexing its muscles. It believes that its side has defeated America in Iraq, and Israel in Gaza and Lebanon. Mr. Ahmadinejad recently claimed that the West has already begun to "surrender," and he gloated that " final victory . . . is near." It is this bravado that bodes war.

A large portion of modern wars erupted because aggressive tyrannies believed that their democratic opponents were soft and weak. Often democracies have fed such beliefs by their own flaccid behavior. Hitler's contempt for America, stoked by the policy of appeasement, is a familiar story. But there are many others. North Korea invaded South Korea after Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared that Korea lay beyond our "defense perimeter." Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait after our ambassador assured him that America does not intervene in quarrels among Arabs. Imperial Germany launched World War I, encouraged by Great Britain's open reluctance to get involved. Nasser brought on the 1967 Six Day War, thinking that he could extort some concessions from Israel by rattling his sword.

Democracies, it is now well established, do not go to war with each other. But they often get into wars with non-democracies. Overwhelmingly the non-democracy starts the war; nonetheless, in the vast majority of cases, it is the democratic side that wins. In other words, dictators consistently underestimate the strength of democracies, and democracies provoke war through their love of peace, which the dictators mistake for weakness.

Today, this same dynamic is creating a moment of great danger. The radicals are becoming reckless, asserting themselves for little reason beyond the conviction that they can. They are very likely to overreach. It is not hard to imagine scenarios in which a single match--say a terrible terror attack from Gaza--could ignite a chain reaction. Israel could handle Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria, albeit with painful losses all around, but if Iran intervened rather than see its regional assets eliminated, could the U.S. stay out?

With the Bush administration's policies having failed to pacify Iraq, it is natural that the public has lost patience and that the opposition party is hurling brickbats. But the demands of congressional Democrats that we throw in the towel in Iraq, their attempts to constrain the president's freedom to destroy Iran's nuclear weapons program, the proposal of the Baker-Hamilton commission that we appeal to Iran to help extricate us from Iraq--all of these may be read by the radicals as signs of our imminent collapse. In the name of peace, they are hastening the advent of the next war.

Mr. Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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